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The "Celestina" Organette

Celestina Organette The 20-note "Celestina" organette was produced by the Munroe Organ Reed Company and mass-marketed by the Mechanical Orguinette Company (later The Aeolian Organ and Music Company) during the 1880s and 90s. The same or similar instruments were produced and sold by several other companies in the USA and England. In 1885 the Mechanical Orguinette Company alone sold over 10,000 Celestinas at a list price of $25 each. This price was equivalent to almost 4 week's wages for the average American worker, or about $2000 in today's money.

The 20-note organette is a considerable advance on the 14-note instruments, both mechanically and musically. The Celestina uses a set of conventional reed-organ pallet valves operated by tiny pneumatic bellows, which in turn are operated by much smaller holes in the tune sheet. The more complex mechanism allows the 20 notes to be recorded on a paper roll that is only 5-1/2" wide. The rolls are wound on compact wooden spools, and are easily interchanged. The tune catalogue includes a very broad selection of traditional, religious, operatic, popular, music-hall, and military songs.

Here are some short MIDI files which show several quite different styles of 20-note organette arrangements. The sound you hear will depend on how well your computer plays the MIDI "reed organ" patch. Listen to:


Celestina with doors open Celestina with doors open.

The Celestina is a much larger and more substantial instrument than the 14-note organettes. The solid timber case measures 16" wide, 14" deep, and 14" high, and the instrument as a whole weighs just on 20 pounds. The case is decorated with elaborate gold linework on all sides.

The upper section of case opens as shown to install the music roll. The small curved door at the front is normally sprung shut, but can be drawn open to vary the volume while playing. An instruction label is pasted onto the inside of the back, so that it is visible when changing the roll.


Celestina decoration Celestina decoration.

This (slightly enhanced) illustration shows the linework on the back of the Celestina. The central motif is repeated on the sides, with even more elaborate borders. The front and top are decorated in a similar style, with the Celestina name in large letters.


Mechanical Orguinette Company name Internal decoration.

The Mechanical Orguinette Company name is printed on the inside of the top lid in a very distinctive font.


Celestina as found Restoration.

Not all Celestinas have been preserved in the same condition as the example above. Although they were treasured posessions in the 1880s, many such instruments were consigned to the barn (or the bonfire) when their owners "updated" to a gramophone or a radio. The instrument opposite is shown in the condition in which it was retrieved from under a house, where it had been stored undisturbed for probably more than 50 years. The glued joints have failed, much of the pine timber in the mechanism has been attacked by borers, but the hardwood case panels are in good condition under all the mud and leaves. The metal parts (including the reeds) were in good restorable condition and have cleaned up well. Even the music has been recovered from the remains of the roll - it was a selection from The Mikado, which was immensely popular when first produced in 1885. It would have delighted the owner when this instrument was new. Rebuilding is proceeding slowly.


Celestina mechanism (front) Celestina mechanism - front view

This view shows a Celestina mechanism removed from its case. The black section at the bottom is the suction reservoir. The flat rectangular box above the reservoir is the windchest, containing the pallet valves and the operating pneumatics. The reeds are mounted above the windchest, just behind the board with the long horizontal slot. The music roll clips into place at the front of the transport mechanism. The paper passes over a "tracker bar" which reads the holes, then onto a take-up spool at the rear.


Celestina mechanism (rear) Celestina mechanism - rear view

This rear view shows the three pumping bellows or "exhausters", the crankshaft, and the drive mechanism. To play the Celestina, the winding handle is pushed inwards and turned clockwise at a constant rate. The speed is about 120 RPM, or 2 turns per second. The crankshaft operates the exhausters to supply the air, and turns the take-up spool via a spring-belt drive and an intermediate gear. To re-wind the roll, the take-up spool is first lifted away from the driving gear by a small eccentric lever (on the left of the spool in this rear view). The winding handle is then pulled outwards to engage the large pulley at the far left, and the handle is again turned clockwise to drive the supply spool via the long spring belt.


CelPallets.jpg (31kb) Inside the Celestina windchest.

Rather than using the paper sheet directly to admit air to the reeds, the Celestina uses tiny pneumatic bellows to operate conventional reed-organ pallet valves. This view of the inside of the windchest shows the 20 long pallet valves and their torsion springs. Three of the pallets have been removed to show the operating pneumatics and their paper bleed discs. The pallet pneumatics are 3-1/2" long and 5/8" wide, and open to 1/2". Most of the length of the pneumatic is hidden under the bar which supports the pallet springs. The reeds are mounted on the far side of the round-ended slots, and are open to the atmosphere.

The windchest is normally under a constant suction of about 3" of water, with the springs keeping the pallets closed and preventing the air from entering. When a hole passes over the tracker bar, it opens an internal passage to the corresponding pneumatic. Air is sucked in through the tracker bar and into the pneumatic, causing it to inflate and lift the pallet. This opens a much larger path to the reed cell through the round-ended slots. Atmospheric air is then drawn in through the reed to produce the sound.

When the tracker hole closes, the pallet spring pushes the pallet and the pneumatic shut. The air trapped inside the pneumatic is expelled through the small hole in the white paper bleed disc.

There is a delicate balance between the windchest suction, the atmospheric pressure, the area of the pallet valve opening, the tension of the pallet return springs, and the size of the bleed hole. When properly restored and adjusted, the mechanism is capable of quite a fast and responsive action.


CelSheet.jpg (18kb) The music roll.

The Celestina plays 20 notes from Ab (G#) to F (MIDI notes 44 to 77), but, like most small organs, it does not have a full chromatic scale. The actual notes are:
G# C# D# F# G# A# C C# D D# E F F# G G# A# C C# D# F

The music roll is nominally 5-1/2" wide, with the paper about 1/16" narrower. The paper is around 0.003" thick, and travels at 5 feet per minute (1 inch per second). A typical roll spool is 1-1/2" diameter and plays for about 3 to 5 minutes, although there are a few "jumbo" rolls that play for over 10 minutes.

The note perforations are arranged on 1/4" centres across the width of the paper. The punches are 0.150" wide (same as the tracker bar slot) and 0.095" long. The step advance of the original perforators was 0.075" (ie, half the slot width), giving an overlap of 0.020" on continuous slots. The "scallops" between successive punch strikes are (just) visible in the illustration. This march tune is perforated at 6 punch steps per beat.


Original text and images Copyright © John Wolff 2003-10.
Last Updated: 1 November 2010
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